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Post feature RSS The Battle of Carrhe

The Battle of Carrhae was the worst defeat in Roman military history and was the first time the famous eagle standard of the Roman Legionnaire was lost in battle. Marcus Linicus Crassus and son Publius were both killed at Carrhae along with 20,000 other Roman soldiers, the odds at Carrhae where 4-to-1 and in the Romans favor (in numbers only).

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The Battle of Carrhae was the worst defeat in Roman military history and was the first time the famous eagle standard of the Roman Legionnaire was lost in battle. Marcus Linicus Crassus and son Publius were both killed at Carrhae along with 20,000 other Roman soldiers, the odds at Carrhae where 4-to-1 and in the Romans favor (in numbers only).

In 54 BC Marcus Linicus Crassus (the richest man in Rome) was fed up of Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeygetting all the glory in the First Triumvirate. And decided to lead a military expedition to not only surpass the triumphs of Caesar and Pompey but also those of Alexander the Great. Crassus’s opinion of his military abilities was vastly over-inflated (partly due to his ego and minor part in putting down Sparticus’s slave revolt). It was because of this Crassus asked the Senate and Caesar for permission to lead an army to Mesopotamia to defeat the Parthian Empire (a mixed-breed of Scythian and Persian-Mede blood).

Not much is known about the great Parthian Suren (Commander-in-Chief) Surena. What we do know however is that Surena’s family was the one that put the Ashkanian Dynasty in power, and the head of the family crowned each Ashkanian Emperor. Surena was a great commander and many of the battles and victories in Parthian legend may be based on Surena’s victories[. Unlike Crassus, Surena had many victories under his belt one was the capture of Selucia (the capital of the old Selucid Empire).

In the spring of 53 BC Marcus Linicus Crassus marched to Parthia with 45,000 legionnaires and 4,000 cavalry (this cavalry was on loan from Julius Caesar and was under Publius’s command). Upon reaching Armenia,Artavasdes the King of Armenia offered his assitance to Crassus by telling him to cross into Parthia through the mountains. He even offered to have the Armenian Army (30,000 foot soldiers and 16,000 cavalry) help the Roman one, Crassus coldly told Artavasdes to leave him and his army alone. Crassus then marched down theEuphrates River, incorporating devastated Roman winter garrisons along the way. Against the advice of his advisor Cassius (the same Cassius that helped formulate the plot to kill Caesar) Crassus crossed the river atZeugma without resting at any of the garrison towns did not even bother to reconnoiter the area. Upon reaching the other side of the river Crassus held council with his legates on what to do next. Cassius told Crassus to follow the river to Babylonia, an Arab guide named Abgarus (a Parthian spy) told him to pull away from the river and march inland because the Parthian Army was in Armenia. In truth only half the army was in Armenia, the other half was waiting to ambush the Romans. On June 9th 53 BC Crassus rode at the front of the column dressed in black (which was considered a bad omen among the Romans) upon realizing his mistake Crassusquickly changed into a scarlet red robe. Crassus then received word that some of the scouts sent ahead had not returned and against his officers judgement Crassus quickly crossed the river Balissus. Cassius advised Crassusto set up camp on the other side of the river and wait for the Parthians there; Crassus did not listen and advanced straight toward the Parthians. At first Crassus listened to his legates and went into battle in extended line, however Crassus soon ordered his men into square and ordered the army to come to a halt near theParthians. The Parthians under Suren Surena numbered 10,000 soldiers (9,000 horse archers and 1,000Cataphracti heavy lancers). Suren Surena also brought along a huge train of camels heavily loaded with arrows (Parthian arrows were special designed to cut through armor and flesh).

The battle itself began when Suren Surena ordered his first line of men to ride up to the Romans covered in animal fur screaming like banshees with the great camel-mounted drums beating wildly, the rest of the army would hide behind the first line doing the same. Suren Surena had correctly perceived that this tactic would scare the already tired and grumbling Romans. At the Suren’s signal all soldiers threw off their animal hides revealing the armor underneath. Every one of the Parthian riders was covered head-to-toe in armor, even their horses were completely covered. The powerful Cataphracti attempted to charge but pulled back after seeing the Roman line. Then the horse archers came to the fore and began riding around the Romans in circles firing their arrows like lighting, sometimes the archers would come close and then pull away (this move was later called the Parthian Shot). As time passed the casualties began to mount at alarming rate, the Roman doctors could not treat the wounds caused by the Parthian arrows due to the fact that the arrowhead's jagged shape would cause the patients death if it was removed. Crassus needed to get some of the Parthians off of him, so Crassusorders his son Publius to lead a force of 1,300 cavalry, 4,000 legionnaires and 500 archers out to fight theParthians. At first the Parthians retreated in front of Publius, but this is a ruse to get Publius away from his father. The Parthians lead Publius to the middle of nowhere and then they began to ride in circles around the Romans kicking up lots of dust, blinding the Romans. Then the horse archers began to fire on the group, on occasion the Cataphracti would charge into the Romans, but the Gallic cavalry on lend from Caesar would pull the Cataphracti off their horses by grabbing their lances and then stab them with the lance. However the horse archers took their toll and soon very few men were in good condition. Publius ordered a charge but there were not enough men to do it, so Publius and his officers charged straight toward the Parthians. In the middle of the confusion Publius was badly wounded and the group broke off from the fight retreating to a nearby hill, there some villagers offered to take Publius back to their town, Ichnae, but Publius refused and told his armor-bearer to run him through with a sword. Back at the main force Crassus believed that Publius had done his job, this was short lived when some of the Parthian riders came up to the main Roman line with Publius’s head on a spear. Crassus was badly shocked and it was then that he realized that the battle was lost. Nightfall brought an end to the battle and the number of wounded was found to be 4,000.

Crassus was in deep despair long into the night. About midnight Cassius managed to get Crassus to move the army to the nearby town of Carrhae. Crassus decided to send the remnants of the cavalry to Carrhae to tell the garrison commander, Coponius of their arrival. When the Romans left camp at midnight Crassus told them to leave the wounded; they were all killed by Parthians at dawn. Crassus and the main body of the ruined army arrived at Carrhae in the wee hours of June 10, one wing of the army under Varguntius got lost in the dark and dawn found them on a hill with Parthians circling around them like wolves, only 20 survived. At Carrhae the 20 survivors told Crassus that Suren Surena is coming, Cassius begged Crassus to make a deal with the Parthians, but Crassus instead decided to flee to the mountains. At nightfall on June 11 the Roman army split into two wings: one under Crassus and the second under Cassius. Crassus’s wing was led by Andromachus (a Parthiansympathizer) who ultimately leads them within 1-½ miles of the Armenian Mountains. Cassius’s wing managed to escapes to Syria. At dawn June 12 the Parthians surrounded the Romans who have camped on a hill, this time the Romans repel the Parthians. Suren Surena is impressed by the Romans and offered peace, but Crassusrefused and told his men that it would be better to escape. The men were furious and threatened to killCrassus, eventually he caved and marched to the Parthian camp, without a horse. At the foot of the hill Suren Surena told Crassus that he will take him to the Parthian king and give him a horse. One of the Roman officers saw this and thought that Crassus was being lead into a trap and he promptly took the horse bit that Crassus is on. The Parthians responded by trying to take back the horse and rider, in the ensuing swordfight the entire Roman party was killed, including Crassus.

In the aftermath of Carrhae a lot happened. In Rome Crassus was the only one keeping Pompey and Caesarfrom taking full power, with Crassus death things soon exploded in the messy politics of Rome. In ParthiaEmperor Hydroes was jealous of Suren Surena and had him executed a few days after Carrhae, in the later years the House of Suren-Pashlav (Suren Surena’s family) helped overthrow the ruling House of Ashkan and placed the House of Sasan in power.

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